Guanyin, Snakes & History’s Ghosts: An Afternoon on Turtle Island

All photos credit to Stephanie Huffman and Candace Chen

Though the form for which the island is named is readily apparent from angles further north and south, from Toucheng pier due west, Turtle Island looks more slug-like than terrapin-shaped. A small and curving rock covered in green, the island – like all points on the horizon – grows larger and more distinctive as our boat draws closer. There are about sixty people on the Blue Whale, all wearing bright orange life jackets and hoping to catch a glimpse of the dolphins sometimes spotted frolicking around the island. The boat takes its time along the island’s southern end, a steep hill dotted with carved outcroppings. (Read more: Taiwan’s First Professional Underwater Cetacean Photographer)

“Are those lookout points?”, asks Stephanie. I point to the long, faded green barrel of a cannon just sticking out of one of the outcropping. “Among other things,” I answer. As with many of Taiwan’s outer islands, military utility took precedence over tourism for many years.

The smell of sulfur, a gentle rotten egg fragrance fills the air as the Blue Whale approaches the underwater thermal springs bubbling from beneath the waves by the Turtle’s head. Steam rising from the water makes it seem like the beast is smoking some great underwater hooka. As our boat rounds the Turtle’s head, the gentle green curves of the island’s Taiwan-facing side give way to the rocky cliffs of its seaward side, which in parts look almost as if the process of collapsing into the sea are ongoing.

From this angle, Turtle Island is far more foreboding. Over the boat’s loudspeaker, the guide explains in Mandarin that the seaward side of the volcanic island takes the brunt of the area’s regular typhoons, and that some of the more rugged cliffs were formed by earthquakes. Past the cliffs the landscape becomes more gentle, and with a bit of squinting I can almost see the long, sloping neck of the turtle connecting head to shell, all covered in green. Although I’m told there are hiking trails along the spine, no hikers are currently present.

Though technically open to tourists as a maritime ecological park since 2000, tourism to the island is fairly restricted. Our friend Candice had applied for our landing permit nearly a month in advance, but of the other travelers on our boat only one couple from Taipei had done the same. It was a far smaller group that were permitted to disembark from the Whale at the boat dock that sits just to one side of the Turtle’s tail. Only when our names are checked against those on a list by a Coast Guard official are we allowed to cross the floating bridge connecting pier to island. The Blue Whale will head further out in search of dolphins while our small group would explore the area around the Turtle’s tail.

Our guide, Mr. Guo, brings us first to the island’s ranger station staffed by an older gentleman and lady. The woman is cheerful, and runs a small, well-stocked gift shop. The man’s semi-military attire suggests that he’s an official of some sort. He sits behind a long desk, empty except for six round, smooth stones arranged in the shape of a turtle.

“Can you guess what these are?” The man says, adding before anyone can reply: “That’s right! Turtle Eggs!”

I pick one up. The man’s claim is patently false. I wonder if he is just testing me to see if I, as a foreigner, am aware of the dual meaning of the term Turtle Egg in Mandarin. In China the term can be used as a pejorative.

“They’re stones,” I say.

“Ha ha ha ha!” The man’s voice booms through the room.” Of course you’re right…but they are laid out in the shape of a turtle!”

He has the bearing of a man who knows well the lay of the land (and had much time for rock collecting). I ask him if there are any guest houses on Turtle Island, or if perhaps camping is allowed. He laughs again, even louder this time, as if willingly spending the night on this godforsaken rock was something people would pay for.

“No camping, no guest house.” He tells me. “Even I don’t sleep here.”   

Turtle Island wasn’t always uninhabited. Settlers began arriving in 1853, and by the early 1970s the small, flat plain on the part of the island facing Taiwan boasted a village with houses, a school, a fresh water spring, and even a temple. But in 1977, the villagers – then numbering around 700 – were relocated to the town of Toucheng in Yilan. The official story, according to both Guo (and the surprisingly well-translated English language displays in what’s left of the town itself) is that after a particularly bad typhoon which cut the village off from resupply for almost two weeks, the villagers agreed that life on the island had become unsustainable and moved willingly to the mainland as part of a deal negotiated with the government. Immediately thereafter Turtle Island was declared a restricted military zone, and of course it’s equally likely that the villagers’ relocation was not entirely as enthusiastically agreed-upon as our guide or the display suggests.

As it turned out, the island’s new inhabitants would come to wish that one particular Turtle Island resident had not joined the villagers’ exodus.

Guo takes us to a temple, a small one by Taiwanese standards, but one that’s clearly been maintained to weather the elements. “Can you guess whose temple this is?” he asks.

“Matsu,” I answer. It seems a sensible guess. A temple built on a small island by people whose livelihoods depend on the sea would naturally offer prayers to the Goddess of the Sea. But I am simultaneously right and wrong.

Guo tells the tale of how the villagers, evicted from their island home, brought their goddess with them to their new village. Shortly thereafter, the military moved in. But in the months that followed, the new residents complained that a general malaise seemed to have crept into life on the island.

“After the villagers left, the weather was rougher than normal, and the soldiers now living on the island described feeling uneasy,” Guo tells us. “It was decided that having an empty temple was upsetting the very spirit of the island itself. The military brought a statue of Guanyin from Taiwan along with some priests, who re-consecrated the temple to the Goddess of Compassion and Mercy.”

According to Guo, things got better shortly after.

Beneath the main statue in the Guanyin temple, there is also a lucky money tiger, where visitors exchange old coins for new while wishing for good fortune. Though the tiger is a simulacrum, Green Island’s other wildlife is not. The island is best-known for what lives in the waters surrounding it, from a species of crab that feeds on the sulfur coming from the underwater hot springs to a number of larger aquatic animals such as dolphins and killer whales.

One animal endemic (some say epidemic) to turtle island are snakes, and signs warning visitors to be wary of venomous snakes greet us at various points along our journey. As we walk through the remains of the now-abandoned fishing village, Guo tells us his own version of a not-uncommon tale among the Taiwanese of Japanese snake-breeding experiments designed to create particularly venomous vipers, presumably to be used in battlefield situations. Having heard the story before, I already know where it’s going.

“Of course, when the Japanese lost the war, they released all the snakes, which is why there are so many snakes on Turtle Island today,” Guo tells the group. Whether by nature or nurture, the snake population is clearly a concern to the people in charge of maintaining guest safety. In addition to the general Beware of Snakes signs posted throughout, part of a multilingual exhibit of text and photographs covering the history, geography and ecology of Turtle Island is specifically devoted to snakes, going into detail on their size, color patterns, aggressiveness and venom level. The display is sobering, and I find myself hoping that the ranger station has a well stocked anti-venom bar somewhere by the gift shop.

We continue through the village, a lonely collection of a few crumbling stone houses and a newer barracks building built for the military, all built on the side of a brackish lake. I try to imagine children playing in the rock-paved streets and people living in the houses, now being used to store massive rolls of green mesh webbing used to gather stones to create the walls and levees that keep the high tides from inundating the island’s low-lying spots. Even with my imaginary life, the place still feels forlorn.

Lack of time and hiking permits does not allow our small group to hike up the Turtle’s back, but Guo has a different kind of exploration planned for us. A short hike leads us to a tunnel entrance, next to which a few abandoned military-type buildings stand, broken doors revealing electronic equipment likely state of the art in the 1970s, including a stereo system, microphone and tape deck likely used to both facilitate communication throughout the island and keep up troop morale.  Another sign warns us to keep only to the main tunnel, and again to beware of snakes.

“This is one of the tunnels built throughout the island for military defense purposes,” Guo tells us. The tunnel is long enough so that midway through, the only light comes from fluorescent tubes stuttering at even intervals; secondary tunnels branch off here and there, but, technically off limits to tourists in any event, unlit. Reaching the end of our tunnel, I realize that we are now inside one of the outcroppings that Stephanie had pointed out from the deck of the Whale. The 120mm naval gun makes clear the fact that observation is only one of the lookout’s purposes.

Guo shows some of the features of the area, from the swiveling gun turret to the shape of the ceiling, designed to dissipate the gun’s deafening boom. I try to imagine being among the conscripts assigned to man the lonely outcropping day in, day out, staring out over a patch of ocean that, in the eighties and nineties at least, seemed an unlikely spot for conflict. Our guide looks at his watch and tells us we’ll need to hurry if we’re to catch the boat back. We return through the tunnel and village, past the ranger station (now closed), and to the dock where the Blue Whale awaits to return us to Taiwan, leaving Turtle Island uninhabited once more save for a few officials, an unknown number of snakes and whatever ghosts choose to remain behind beneath the watchful eye of the Goddess of Compassion, Mercy and Kindness.

Our exploration focused mainly on culture and history, but Taiwan based author Richard Saunders writes lovingly about his 2010 Turtle Island Hiking trip at Taiwan Off The Beaten Track.

Interested in visiting Turtle Island?  MyTaiwanTour will do its best to hook you up. (No promises though – permits need to be obtained in advance, and slots often fill up quick.)

Read more about islands around Taiwan:

Three Days on Xiao Liuqiu (were not enough)

Green Island — A Tropical Island of Myriad Scenic, Historic, and Outdoor Fun Attractions

The Penghu Pearls – Islands Close to Taiwan’s Heart, Yet a World Away